It is evident from the entire passage that the apostle is thinking not of all that may be known of God, but of those attributes that through the medium of the works of God’s hand in creation and providence even the natural man is capable of discerning. And he emphasizes that these attributes of God are manifest in them. They are not merely written before their eyes in the works of the Almighty, but the knowledge of God is conveyed to their very consciousness. God hath showed it unto them. In themselves the things of God are invisible. For not only is God a Spirit, but He is also infinite in all His perfections. If He is to be known, He must show Himself in such a manner, speak of Himself in such language, that the creature who is made by Him can understand the language. This God has done from the creation of the world. The things that are made are instrumental in the revelation of the invisible things of God. They speak. They utter knowledge. And to a certain extent that speech also penetrates to the natural man, who is in the darkness of sin and corruption. He certainly possesses sufficient light to prove the apostle’s statement that he holds the truth in unrighteousness. For also to the natural man the things that are made convey the knowledge of God’s eternal power and Godhead. Creation speaks of God as infinite in power, witnesses of Him as being God over all, and therefore as the one that is to be feared and thanked and adored. And by his natural light man, even in his sin beholds this, and hears this speech. For the things are clearly seen. They are understood by the things that are made. God causes them to be manifest in him. Mentally man is able to contemplate the invisible things of God as shining through the things that are made. If, therefore, he sins, it is not due to natural darkness. If man had lost even his natural light completely, so that in no sense any testimony of God could penetrate his consciousness, he would not be able to sin and assume an attitude of ungodliness and unrighteousness over against the living God. But now it is different. What is known of God is manifest also in his consciousness. He knows God as the one that must be served and feared and glorified.
This, however, man refused to do. We read in vs. 21: “Because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Man was in duty bound to extol the glory of God. Such was his calling. It was incumbent upon him to know the name of the living God, and beholding its glory, to sing its praise. And not only this. For God is not only glorious in Himself, so that all praise and honor belong to Him alone; but the creature also receives all good things from Him. It therefore is becoming to man, who knows Him, that he shall bow in grateful acknowledgement before that God and thank Him for all His goodness. But in both these respects the sinner failed. He refused to glorify Him as God, and failed to be thankful. Upon all this ungodliness the wrath of God is revealed from heaven. It is revealed also in the fact that the sinner became vain in his imaginations and that his foolish mind was darkened, so darkened that “he changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things.” Thus the heathen world plunged into all the folly of idolatry and image worship. They professed themselves to be wise. But their pretended wisdom was spiritual foolishness. And the Lord turned it into all the folly of idolatry and image worship. They professed themselves to be wise. But their pretended wisdom was spiritual foolishness. And the Lord turned it into folly even as far as its natural manifestation was concerned. In their wicked deliberations they chose and formed their own gods and made images of the invisible and infinite majesty in the heavens. Not heeding the truth being witnessed to them through the things that are made concerning the glory of an imperishable and incorruptible God, revealing His eternal power and godhead round about them in the works of His hands, they presently realized their own conceptions of God. They represented the most high under the images of perishable man, corruptible beasts, creeping things and winged fowl. This was a terrible encroachment upon the majesty of an ever living and infinite God. But at the same time it also is a revelation of the wrath of God, Who plunged them into their foolishness. Man, originally formed after the image of God and designed to have dominion over all things, now was found kneeling before, trusting in, and expecting all his help and salvation from the graven image of a creature that was perishable like himself and over which he had been destined to reign. The self-willed and wicked wisdom of man was proved to be foolishness.
The wrath of God was revealed from heaven because of this encroachment upon the glory of the divine being.
And how did it become revealed upon the world of that time? The answer we find, first of all, in vs. 24: “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves.”
The moral degradation of the heathen world is revealed here as the result of an act of God’s wrath upon them. God gave them up unto uncleanness.
We know how Dr. Kuyper, in his “De Gemeene Gratie,” interpreted these words, as well as those in vss. 26 and 28. To him “God gave them up” expresses the same thing as if the apostle had said, “He abandoned them, He let them go, He refrained from further exerting His restraining influence upon them.” The text was exegeted thus in order to find a basis for the theory that God in grace restrains sin in its progress. This being Dr. Kuyper’s purpose, the entire passage of , ff. is distorted to say exactly the opposite from what the apostle actually teaches here. The argument is as follows. God let the heathen go; He abandoned them to their own hearts lusts at a certain period of their religious and moral development. This presupposes that there was a period preceding this historic moment in which He had not thus given them up. Hence, during this period He restrained them. He held their sinful lusts in check, so that they were not as sinful as they otherwise might have been. But this interpretation is plainly against the clear meaning of the passage. The context witnesses against this interpretation. For Paul had not spoken of a revelation of God’s grace, whereby sin had been checked in the past, but on the contrary, of a revelation of God’s wrath from heaven, whereby sin had developed from bad to worse. The foolish heart of the sinner had been darkened, and he now bowed before man and beast and creeping things. Besides, the meaning of the words themselves, “God gave them up,” testifies against such an interpretation. This is evident from all Scripture. When we read in , “And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child,” the same word is used in the original for “deliver up” as in for “gave up”. Yet it is plain that the meaning is not that the brother shall abandon or let go the brother to death, and the father the child. See also . In we read: “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and hailing men and women, committed them to prison.” The word for “committed” in the original of this verse is the same as that employed in for “gave up”. Yet it is plain that the meaning cannot be that Saul abandoned them or let them go into prison, but that he actively led them into prison. In we find the same word used in the following sentence: “The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men.” Also there the word does not denote a mere passive abandonment, but a positive act. The same is true of , where we read: “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted.” These examples could easily be multiplied. They shed light upon the meaning of the word which Paul here in Romans 1 employs. No more than it can be said that anyone is delivered up unto prison or into death, into the hands of anyone, or unto affliction and tribulation by an act of mere passive abandonment, no more has anyone the right to give that passive meaning to the word used in . Certainly, the heathen also fell into the mire of their moral corruption and degradation by an act of their own will. They chose to follow after the lusts of their own hearts. God’s operation never encroaches upon man’s moral freedom and responsibility. The giving up of God did not take place against but in harmony with their own will and lusts. But this does not remove the fact that the word denotes a positive act of God whereby the heathen that abandoned Him is cast into deeper degradation and corruption. Besides, this is also in harmony with all that the Scriptures teach concerning God’s relation to the creature, and in conformity with Reformed doctrine. It is not Scriptural, neither Reformed to teach that God ever abandons the creature, even His moral creature. Though God is never the author of sin in man, yet he does cooperate with Him even when he walks in ways of sin and corruption. He does not only form the vessels of honor, but also the vessels of wrath; the former unto eternal glory, and the latter unto destruction; the former as a manifestation of His infinite mercy, the latter as a revelation of His righteous indignation. To speak of God as abandoning the creature and allowing him to choose his own ways independent of an operation of God is deistic and Pelagian. Hence, the word in denotes a positive act of God whereby the heathen, who changed the image of the incorruptible God into the image of corruptible man, was cast into all the moral degradation that is described in the rest of the chapter and that is here denoted by the single word “uncleanness”.
Indeed God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children in the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him.
Let us enter a little more deeply into this act of God whereby He gave up the heathen that trampled His glory under foot.
First of all, that God cast them down into uncleanness, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, and further into all the moral debasement described in the last part of this chapter, draws our attention. It is evident that the punitive infliction here indicated is entirely in harmony with the nature of the sin they, the heathen, had first committed. Debasement religiously is punished with debasement morally. If man perverts the relation between God and himself, his sin is punished with a distortion of the moral relation among men mutually. The sin and the punishment are in harmony with each other, and the latter is manifestly just. The heathen had changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image of corruptible man and of beasts and of creeping things. Man wanted a god, but he refused to acknowledge and honor God. He closed his eyes to God’s revelation of His eternal power and godhead, and he made himself an image of God like unto himself and the beasts of the field. Now it is entirely proper and just that as a man’s god is, so is Hot only his religion, but also his moral standard. If he chooses to call sinful man his god, his moral principles and his life will be according to the standard of sinful man. If he worships an ox, a frog, a serpent, he will have the moral principles of an ox, frog or serpent. And since after all himself is no animal, but man, made originally after the image of God, it is but just that he should be degradated so far below the level of animal life as a worshipper stands below a god whom he worships. For man never stands on the same level with his god. If, then, an ox is the god of his choice, it is evident that he should be lower than the ox. Religion and morality are closely related. The latter is dependent upon the former. This is the relation God established. It is a just relation, so inseparably connected with and inherent in the nature of things, that to us moral degradation appears but as an inevitable consequence of religious apostasy from the living God. Yet this moral degradation would never result if God did not bring it about as a punitive infliction upon the sinner that lifts his rebellious fist in the face of the holy one, He casts the sinner down as a manifestation of His just wrath and holy indignation.
Besides, we may also note that even in the act of this punitive infliction God never encroaches upon the moral nature and responsibility of a sinner which He thus gives over and casts down. Man is never a mere machine, operated by God. When God through grace draws the sinner unto Himself and sheds abroad His love into his heart, renewing and sanctifying him by the efficacious operation of His Spirit, the sinner himself wills to repent, wills to humble himself, wills to be saved, wills to turn from his evil way, wills to believe in Christ, and wills to walk in a new and holy life of love to God. He does not feel himself compelled by a force outside of him and foreign to his own moral nature. On the contrary, in all these actions he is impelled by the promptings of his own heart, although the deepest cause of it all is the irresistible operation of God drawing him out of darkness into His marvelous light. The same is true of the wicked when God punishes in this case sin with sin, and casts the sinner down into the mire of moral debasement. This is indicated in the text when the apostle writes: “Through the lusts of their own hearts.” God gave up the heathen that forsook Him not through any external power or force, but through the instrumentality of something that was inherent in their own moral nature. Man has desires. When that creature with those desires is controlled by the love and fear of the Lord, and chooses God to be his God all is well: for then he will thirst after the living God above all, and in his moral life it will be his delight to do the will of the Lord. But when the relation between God and his heart is distorted because of sin, God operates in wrath upon him and upon the desires of his heart. For the object of God’s wrath he is. And again, when God operates in His fiery wrath upon those desires in the heart of that sinful man, those desires turn into lusts. And in these lusts the sinner yearns after uncleanness, and chooses moral degradation and filth as the sphere of his life. And the result is that the sinner, forsaking God, arrives in the mire of moral depravity and uncleanness by virtue of his own choice. Yet God, employing the lusts of the sinner as His instrument, directs that choice from heaven, and in punitive wrath casts down the sinner into the darkness of corruption.
Thus God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him.
Finally, in this connection we may also notice that the ultimate purpose of God in thus dealing with the sinner is not the deeper sin and corruption with which he is punished, but his death and destruction. Plainly the apostle expresses this when he adds: “To dishonor their bodies between themselves.” It may be admitted that this last phrase is descriptive indeed: of the particular uncleanness which the apostle has in mind. But it is not merely descriptive, further qualifying the moral degradation of the sinner. It also expresses purpose and design. God cast them down into that uncleanness in order that they should, living apart from Him and departing from His ways and corrupting His glory, dishonor their bodies, and thus corrupt themselves, receiving the mete recompense of their error in themselves. Sin begets sin. And sin begotten works death and destruction. And God works it all to manifest that He is holy and righteous, and that He cannot be in league with the sinner that departs from Him and chooses to corrupt His glorious revelation. No one can depart from the living God and be safe, even for a moment.
The apostle continues to develop this theme of the revelation of the wrath of God to the very end of the chapter. In vs. 25 he calls attention once more to the judicial ground upon which God gave over the heathen world into the mire of corruption and debauchery which he will presently describe. The ground is that men have sinned against the living God, against the Creator that is blessed forever. He alone is worthy to receive the praise and adoration of all His creatures. And it is particularly man’s calling to extol this praise of the blessed God. For he is made after the image of God. And before all creatures man must praise the great and glorious God, and tell of His wonders. Such is his calling. But instead, men changed the truth of God into a lie. The truth of God is His revelation, in this instance the revelation as it comes in all the works of God’s hands, the revelation of God’s eternal power and godhead. That truth, which proclaimed God as being glorious and infinite in power, they had willfully changed into the lie of their false gods and images, and they had represented the Most High under the images of man and beasts and creeping things. Thus they worshipped and served the creature instead of the glorious creator. This was the cause of God’s burning wrath. He cannot allow His glory to be trampled underfoot. And this wrath He continued to reveal from heaven in giving the ungodly over into all the vile sins they committed.
Then the apostle takes up the thought again which he had already expressed in vs. 24. Only from vs. 26 to the end of the chapter he enters into a detailed description of the corruption of the world. In vs. 24 he had spoken of the lusts of their hearts, and of their dishonoring their bodies between themselves. Now in vs. 26 the apostle expresses definitely the sin to which he refers. He emphasized once more that he is dealing with the judicial act of retribution on the part of God. He gave them over. And the first corruption he proceeds to mention in detail is that which pertains to sexual intercourse. These are mentioned first undoubtedly because they were first in reality. Bodily lusts followed closely upon the heels of ungodliness. When man departs and separates himself from God, his bodily lusts are unchained. These are the first that assert themselves. They are strong and become like a consuming fire in his blood. They rule over him, and he is their slave. They drag him down, and he follows them into inevitable destruction. They are also most degrading and revolting, where they manifest themselves in the unnatural relations of which the apostle is speaking in the text. And lastly, they are at the same time the clearest manifestation of the wrath of God against all ungodliness of men. For they reveal God’s design upon the corruption of the body as a mete punishment for their sin. In the original the apostle does not speak of men and women, but of males and females. The reason is undoubtedly because it is to that part of their life that had to do with sex particularly that he is here referring. We may notice too that he mentions the sin of the women first, probably because in them it is most revolting. The sin mentioned is horrible indeed. Women live with women, men are heated toward men. In their craving lusts they seek satisfaction in practices uncommon, against nature, and unseemly. And thus God’s purpose was reached. For in His wrath He purposed to destroy them. And by their anti-natural practices they worked out their own destruction, and received in themselves the due recompense for their first aberration, the changing of the truth of God into a lie. And certainly, if the cover could be torn from the hidden night life of the world of today, we would discover undoubtedly that with equal veracity the same statement might be made in application to modern life.